In School in Germany: Substitute Teachers or Flexible Class Schedule?

What happens when your teacher is sick and the planned course schedule for that particular day has to be postponed or cancelled? This question may be a no-brainer to some, yet inquiring minds want to know. With the increase in absences because of illness among the teachers due to stress (some resulting from burn-out syndrome) and other viruses that students bring to the classroom on a daily basis, it is important to find out how schools plan ahead so that the students do not fall behind in their classes.

Each school system has its own guidelines with regards to Plan B, regardless of which state or region it is located. In the United States, it is normal to find a substitute teacher taking over classes in case if illness or family emergencies. Substitute teachers are very flexible in a way that they can jump in at any time when they are needed. While some of them bring the knowledge they learned in their education programs at the university to continue teaching- picking up where the absent teacher left off, others elect not to take up the chore and decide either for study hall (meaning students have a chance to catch up on their work in other classes) or other activities. One of the substitute teachers at a junior high school I attended in Minnesota was into reading and therefore, read us many stories during the class period. While she has long since passed, she encouraged others like yours truly to pick up a book from time to time and burn through the pages.

The other plan B can be found in many schools in Germany. If one class is cancelled because of illness or other serious matter, another class takes its place, taught by the teacher.  That means if an English class taught by Mrs. Steinkreuz (for example) is cancelled because she had the stomach flu, that class is replaced by another class, such as History with Mr. Hermann, Ethics with Ms. DeJesus or even French by Madame Moiselle.  The reason for such a flexible class change is simple: Unlike the US, which runs mostly a strict schedule where courses are taught at a certain time every day and teachers have to keep to the plan, Germany’s schedule, at least on the high school level, resembles that of a college class schedule, where students elect to choose certain classes that fit their schedule. Granted that (foreign) language, history and social studies, and sciences must be in the mix, but a flexible schedule enables the student to work with their studies to ensure they have them completed at their pace, while teachers have a chance to further their planning. Some class replacements may have to do with a teacher having an extended session to watch a film, while others may be in connection with a field trip that was planned. In either case, this flexibility does have some advantages. Yet one notable disadvantage is that a sudden change in scheduling can also put the planning of both the students as well as the teacher out of alignment, which means that some topics planned for the session may have to be either postponed or even cancelled; a disadvantage for the teacher as well as some students that were eager to learn about it.

But it does not mean that schools in Germany do not have substitute teachers.  They are usually available to jump in should plan B does not work. It can consist of someone from another school, one working part time in the school system, Referendar (those teaching on a probationary basis for 1-2 years before being hired full time by the state) and the interns doing their Praxissemester (like yours truly did).  Sometimes substitute teachers can also have a positive impact in a way that they can keep the schedule in tact as much as possible while allowing the students to complete their work on their topic without missing the beat.  But as I noticed from my experience in the Praxissemester, even that combination has its limits, especially when  many teachers are absent due to stress-related issues, which will be discussed later when talking about Burn-out Syndrome, and the number of substitutes are limited, both in numbers as well as in knowledge. In the case of the interns, they require a hired staff when teaching a session, to ensure that they are not overrun by the students in class. A concept that is understandable when the intern is 22 years of age (on average) and does not know if the profession is the right one.

Keeping the pros and cons of substitute teaching and replacement sessions in mind, let’s ask the Forum about this topic:

  1. In your school, how does it work when a teacher is absent due to illness or other emergencies? Do you provide a substitute, replace a session with one from another subject or do something totally different?
  2. How have you dealt with teachers who are absent for longer periods of time due to illness, etc. (say more than 1 week)?
  3. If you had a choice between providing a substitute, replacing a session or both, which option would you choose and why?

Place your comments here or in the Files’ facebook page and share some information on how you deal with absenteeism among teachers. Sometimes your suggestions and ideas will help others in the long term. As we will eventually talk about Burn-Out Syndrome in the series, the profession can be a highly demanding job that requires teachers with nerves of steel to do the job. However even the teachers have their limits, even yours truly.

In School in Germany: 45 Minutes

45 minutes! That’s the amount of time it takes for a session in school here in Germany. While school starts at 7:45 in the morning and ends around 3:00 (in some cases, even an hour later), there are 7-8 sessions in a day, each one lasting 45 minutes. That’s half the session needed for a session at the university here in the US, 15 minutes less than a session at an American high school, and 25 minutes less than a session at an American university.  For the pupils, it is a blessing, as there is little to do for one class, despite having much to do for the others. For teachers, less to prepare despite having to try and fulfill the curriculum guidelines provided for them by the state. Yet in general, there is less to teach them despite the fact that there is more for them to learn, especially when entering the secondary level stages beginning in the fifth grade.

45 minutes can be a blessing and a curse all at once, especially if a teacher is used to the 90 minute session at the university, both as a student as well as a teacher or even professor. One can generalize the topics to be taught, yet some important ingredients are missing. One can deepen a topic and still miss some ingredients. But if one is given a choice between several 45 minute sessions and sacrificing some classes from the curriculum and have 60 minute sessions, then better to have the 45 minute session. After all, some classes meet 2-3 times a week, including foreign languages (Latin included), pending on the schedule, which is a relief for teachers and students alike.

An important lesson to learn from one’s own experience: Less is More. Prepare more but expect less. Prepare less but expect more. Teachers are there to provide the basic information for students to research more in detail about in their spare time. After all, with extra-curriculum activities not being as popular and stressed as in the US, they can afford it. Yet what is important is for students to process and share the information provided by the teacher to others, both in the classroom as well as outside school.  Therefore a session of between 45 and 60 minutes in the classroom should suffice in allowing students to learn something for the day.  What they do with it and how they manage their time in learning outside the classroom is up to them.  45 minutes for the teachers gives them an incentive to plan ahead so that they don’t have to worry about it later on. Something that schools in other countries should think about before writing core curricula, as is the case in the US at the moment.

Important note: While a typical day in a German school can be seen here, some points to compare the German schedule with that of the US are as follows:

  1. German high schools sometimes has 90-minute block sessions, meaning two 45-minute sessions in one. This is common in 11th and 12th grades, and the goal is to prepare them for their Abitur, the final exam taken at the end of the 12th grade year before graduating.
  2. Two 25- minute breaks are included in the plan for the Gymnasium, although the breaks vary from school to school. In US schools, there is only one break at lunch time.

Yet despite this, many teachers over in Germany are suffering the same problems as in the US: burnout syndrome. Reason: too much work and too little appreciation. How teaching is an underrated job that should be reformed and teachers can improve their health will be discussed later when the Files looks at Burnout Syndrome in School.